Article 29 of the Ethiopian Constitution declares that every individual has the right to their opinions and freedom of expression without any interference. The article covers freedom to speak, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art or through any media of their choice.
The article stipulates that any form of censorship is prohibited and full access to public information is guaranteed. It further states that in the interest of the free flow of information, ideas and opinions which are essential to the functioning of a democratic order, the press shall, as an institution, enjoy legal protection to ensure its operational independence and its capacity to entertain diverse opinions.
The reality in Ethiopia is, however, entirely different from these statements. And the reason for this is directly related to the nature of the government.
The ruling party in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), came to power through armed struggle. The all-inclusive name hides, in reality, an ethno-centrist Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Other ethnic groups in the EPRDF are puppets, there in order to pretend that it has a broad ethnic base. They do not have any freedom to decide their own fate, let alone any national issues. The TPLF is the only visible and decisive power in Ethiopian politics today, even though Tigrians represent just 5% of the Ethiopian population and are only one of 80 ethnic groups. They have had a monopoly over the country’s resources for the last 24 years and are now controlling not only political power but also the economy, military and security establishments.
The EPRDF has also long been a fanatic pursuant of communist ideology and even now, after the fall of the Eastern Bloc when Ethiopia hastily converted to being a champion of democracy, continues to mistrust free press and free expression.
The current sustained crackdown of the free press started after the 2005 elections. The government had been confident to win, given the weak position of the opposition parties and their lack of organization. But despite these challenges Ethiopians exercised their democratic right for once in the country’s history and voted comprehensively for the opposition parties. It was a moment when the Ethiopian public denied the EPRDF government any legal basis.
After the elections, however, the opposite story was told to the Ethiopian people and the world. Harsh measures were used to reverse the election results. Some 200 innocent people were shot dead in broad daylight in the streets of Addis Ababa during a protest against the false results. 10,000 opposition sympathizers were jailed and tortured. All opposition leaders and independent journalists were put behind bars and many independent newspapers were shut down.
The aborted elections of 2005 set the pace for political struggle in Ethiopia. It became clear that the regime could not win through peaceful and fair elections. Thus the government restricted the free space for any political exchange. It introduced repressive laws such as: the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation, and Charities and Civil Society Law that silenced any opposing voices.
These laws allow the prosecution of journalists writing articles critical of the government or reporting on corruption, maladministration, human rights violations etc… They have become powerful tools of intimidation and harassment. As a result, several dozens of independent journalists have fled Ethiopia and many others are in jail.
The regime has continued to accuse the independent press of conspiracy and alliance with the opposition forces, described as terrorists, though they are not labeled as such by any international body. Arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances and killings of those who don’t conform to the new laws are common.
Additionally, it is impossible to provide decent information to the public on anything connected to defence, security and international relations; cabinet documents and financial information are out of bounds for reporters. Neither domestic nor foreign journalists are allowed to go to areas where serious human rights abuses are allegedly occurring.
The Ethiopian government doesn’t seem satisfied with harassing and suppressing journalists. It is also obsessed with blocking and censoring the websites of political parties, bloggers and individual activists and it invests a lot of money in jamming radio and television stations.
These restrictions extend to the operations of any potential opposition party. The government claims there are 60 or so registered political parties in the country. The truth is that there is no more than one independent party, known as the Blue Party, ‘Medrek’, which is very weak because of the constant harassment and harsh government measures. The rest are pseudo-parties claiming to be independent but which are actually created and manipulated by the government and appear on government-run media. Genuine opposition parties are not allowed to call rallies, disseminate their ideas or interact with their supporters at any time including during the campaign period.
The Ethiopian public expects that the ruling front (EPRDF/TPLF) will stay in power indefinitely, and that it is unlikely that any geo-political conflict or internal turmoil will bring it down. In the last elections the regime allowed only one person from the opposition and another independent competitor to hold seats in the 547-member EPRDF/TPLF parliament. What is not yet known to the Ethiopian people is the number of seats to be awarded to the opposition in the future government. It may be none, one, two, three or five. This May the government will shamelessly tell the Ethiopian public once again that it has won a ‘landslide victory’. Let us see whether the government improves on the remarkable 99.6% of the votes that it claimed in 2010.